Listening to Radio Scotland this morning, there was a remarkable discussion about one woman’s effort to establish a food bank. It was remarkable because here we are in 21st Century Scotland, a rich country by any yardstick, poring over how such an initiative might cope with demand. The bank would be open on Mondays and Fridays initially until demand picked up, probably after Christmas. Demand of course being predicated by the increasing numbers of people unable to afford to feed themselves and their families.
Church of England Bishops are dominating headlines too for sending an open letter to the UK Government criticising key aspects of its welfare reform proposals, which could be “profoundly unjust” to children in the poorest families. Eighteen bishops signed up to the letter, published in today’s Observer, claiming they “have a moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice”.
For anyone in any doubt, the changes being proposed to the welfare state are the epitome of too fast, too deep. Taken by themselves, any one of the measures might be justifiable – indeed, the core principle at the heart of Iain Duncan-Smith’s reform programme is to create a single benefit, the universal credit, and to simplify and streamline the system. This in itself is welcome and many families will in fact be better off under the single payment. But it is everything else being levered in that threatens to move more children, disabled people, older people and vulnerable adults into poverty. Sweeping changes to housing benefit; the controversial cap, which will hit families with a disabled member hardest; increasing the retirement age for women; punitive charges for parents who have to use the new version of the child support agency; sanctions, conditionality and time limits which in a period of economic downturn make no sense when there are few jobs for people to apply for. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has estimated that by 2020, as a result of these and other UK government changes to things like tax credits, a further 400,000 people across the UK could be made poor.
The scale of the changes and cuts has prompted the Scottish Parliament – rightly – to set up an intensive scrutiny process for the remainder of the bill’s passage at Westminster. Three committees are looking at the reforms and before Christmas, Holyrood will decide whether or not to allow the UK Parliament to legislate on areas devolved to Scotland. For the first time, MSPs are considering withholding consent, though it is not clear what the consequences of such an action would be. The last thing vulnerable families needs is further chaos and uncertainty, and the risk of benefits running dry.
There is no doubt that welfare reform is the issue of the day. Good. Every civilised society needs to provide support to those who need it most and the UK bill threatens to dismantle that central premise. How that is done and by whom is now a key touchstone in our political settlement.
Earlier this week, the Scotland Office indulged in more of its bogeyman strategy by publishing statistics that showed – rather selectively – that an independent Scotland could not afford its share of welfare spending. When pensions and welfare payments were set beside Scotland’s share of oil and gas income, the balance comes up short. Not to be undone, Stephen Noon, one of the Scottish Government’s special advisors, delved into the GERS document for 2010 and pulled out the fact that currently, welfare spending in Scotland is less than for the UK as a whole, as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.
The debate, such as it was, engendered a deep sense of dismay in the burd. Why? Two things.
If all that independence achieves – or indeed, devo-max given that there is nothing to stop benefits being devolved as part of a move to full fiscal autonomy – is to shift the UK version of a welfare state to Scottish ownership, then what is the point? The current welfare system is broken and needs fixed. That much Iain Duncan-Smith gets and his philosophy is actually thoughtful and well-meant. It is the translation of that philosophy into activity that is causing all the problems, partly because the instincts of a Conservative government betray them but also because the current system is so complex that changing one part of it has an unintended knock-on effect on other parts.
It is a mess, as anyone who has ever tried to claim their entitlement can tell you. The approach in recent years, to manage an unwieldy system, has been to put blocks in place of people claiming their entitlement and receiving it timeously and completely. Knowing how to navigate the current benefits system is an art form and a highly prized science – welfare rights advisors might be lowly paid but their skills and knowledge are priceless.
Given that Scotland is – on the surface at least – poles apart politically, arguing for the devolution of the welfare state should be a priority. But we need control over welfare in order to start again and fashion a more responsive, more humane system. If all we do is scottify the creaking, unfair and unjust UK system, then we will have missed an opportunity and failed our population.
Which prompts my second concern. The aim of any nation should be to reduce its spending on welfare. We should not be in a bidding war for the affordability of welfare. It is wrong, utterly, for increasing spending on welfare to be a badge of success for any productive, responsible country. Having to spend more on welfare is a declaration of failure.
One of the reasons Scotland has so many people who are economically inactive in the long term is because of our poor health record. People become ill and fall out of work. Another reason is that when families break up, we do not enable those left caring for children to combine work and parental responsibilities in any meaningful way. For too many children, family breakdown results in poverty because the parent with care becomes dependent on benefits and the absent parent can avoid their financial duty towards their children.
Moreover, many people with mild and moderate physical and learning disabilities are denied the same educational opportunities as their peers, at school and then in further education. It means they lack the skills to work and employers can continue to discriminate against them in the workplace. They are denied the same life chances as their peers because we live in an unequal society.
And for those most vulnerable children who end up being parented by the state – some 15,000 of them – the outcomes are truly dismal. Poor educational attainment, low literacy levels, a likelihood of homelessness and imprisonment, an increased change of substance addiction, and the probability that their own attempts to raise a family will result in a generational cycle of disadvantage being born. Few ever manage to hold down a job, that is well-paid and meaningful.
A vibrant, ambitious nation with strong aspirations for its people and its future should not be planning to continue this cycle of despair by factoring in the costs of current welfare spending. It should be fathoming out how to reduce that expenditure by investing in activities, services and support that prevent many of the reasons for welfare dependency arising in the first place. And it should also be exploring how we can become a fairer, more just and equal society, that acknowledges its dues to its most vulnerable citizens and ensures that people do not scrimp through retirement in poverty, that families with disabled members are not made to feel a burden and have enough money to live on comfortably, that people who fall on to hard times – for whatever reason – have an adequate safety net to land on that provides all that they need to get back on their feet.
That is the debate Scotland should be having – how a Scottish welfare state might look, behave and do things differently, to benefit our people and long term well-being as a nation.